US attorneys were directed to “divert all necessary resources” to investigating sex-for-rent schemes after an “historically unprecedented” rise in sex trafficking since the coronavirus lockdown.
Attorney General William Bar sent a memo to attorneys across the country to prioritise cases where landlords are alleged to offer deals on housing in exchange for sexual favours.
“Such behaviour is despicable and it is illegal,” Mr Barr wrote in the memo. “This behaviour is not tolerated in normal times, and certainly will not be tolerated now.”
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The Justice Department is looking into the phenomenon following reports of increasing sexual harassment to agencies like the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.
Commission Executive Director Khara Jabola-Carolus told The Independent on Thursday that she had seen more instances of historically unprecedented sexual violence against women in two weeks of the coronavirus lockdown than she had in two years.
“Some are more on the end of sex trafficking and others have been sexually explicit imagery. But it’s not just indecent proposals, it’s landlords engaging in sexual assault,” she said.
“We’ve had one woman who had been through so much trauma because of the sexual assault and pressure of the landlord she lost a significant amount of weight.”
More than 26 million people have filed claims for unemployment since March, the Department of Labor said on Thursday.
Mr Barr said in the memo that the drastic measures to slow the spread of Covid-19 resulted in Americans losing their jobs and many more having their wages reduced.
“These losses have forced many to seek abatements or suspensions of their rent, with reports that nearly one-third of Americans were unable to pay their April rent at the beginning of the month,” Mr Barr said.
Data from the National Multifamily Housing Council showed 31 per cent of households failed to make rent for the month by 5 April but that number since increased to 89 per cent by 19 April.
Mr Barr said that while many landlords have responded to these circumstances with understanding and care, others have responded with “demands for sexual favours other acts of unwelcome sexual conduct”.
“Many reports of housing-related sexual harassment will be made locally and it is imperative that state and local officials understand that the Justice Department stands ready to take aggressive action against this misconduct whenever it occurs,” he said.
The Department of Justice directed Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the US Attorney for the District of Vermont, to oversee the efforts.